Thursday, March 3, 2011

Urban forestry vs. Urban Wilderness?

A pair of articles in Helium, an online compendium for publishers and writers, touts the benefits of urban forestry. Urban forestry is defined basically as planting, preserving, and maintaining trees in urban areas. The two authors' main point is that the presence of trees in urban environments improve the quality of life and city dwellers' mental health. Who would argue with that? Not I.

Claims also are made that well maintained trees in urban neighborhoods help to alleviate crime. Trees make neighborhoods more attractive, leading people to spend more time outdoors, which ought to deter criminal activity, according to this theory. That may be true; I wouldn't know.

Managed plantings provided by Rivercrest Condominiums
next to the Milwaukee River in Milwaukee, WI
However, I do have a concern about a reference to urban wilderness made in one of the articles. Sylvia Farley, who is from the United Kingdom, says "Urban wilderness is the incursion of unmanaged green areas into the city. Urban Forestry is carefully planned and integrated management of all publicly accessible trees within a given urban area." As anyone who has been following my blog and other writings will appreciate, I consider the phrase "urban wilderness" to be charged with many different, sometimes contradictory meanings. In itself, "urban wilderness" represents a paradox if not an oxymoron. That the term has gained currency throughout the US, if not the UK, in recent years is testimony to its conceptual power. (A google search of "urban wilderness" will turn up too many results to pursue.)

Urban wilderness is a largely symbolic idea that embodies the principle of harmony with nature for people who live in cities. However, I believe that there's a real, essentially physical component to urban wilderness that is as much about providing habitat for wildlife as it is about the recreational or psychological needs of people. An urban wilderness is a wildlife habitat in a city - or suburb. In other words, it's about more than trees: it's about urban ecology.

An urban wilderness in the Menomonee River Parkway in Wauwatosa, WI.
Due to budgetary restraints in Milwaukee County, it is largely unmanaged.
I'm not knocking urban forestry, as promoted in the Helium articles. I'm all for it. But let's not knock urban wilderness either. I chose the two images that accompany this post deliberately for their contrast. One shows managed plantings at a condo complex, no doubt intended as aesthetic improvements for the residents' quality of life. (Probably not what the authors had in mind as urban forestry, but where is the line drawn?) The other is from the Milwaukee County Park system, which includes 10,000 acres of natural areas. It is one of the places I like to go for my own peace of mind.


  1. Eddee,
    An interesting connection. I have had interactions with forestry folks that speak of “Junk trees,” “ghetto bushes” and other growth that is unmanaged or undesirable from their perspective. I suppose invasive species could be wilderness we don’t want in our urban areas. I make a distinction between planned and wild, rows and random, groomed and “natural.”
    Jim WEnd

  2. Invasive species are definitely a problem in urban as well as other wildernesses. Ironically, if not paradoxically, "natural areas" and even wilderness must be managed and maintained to some extent no matter where they are located, but urban areas especially. As Bill McKibben said in "The End of Nature," there is no place on earth that remains untouched by human activities.